A former reporter at the state news agency Xinhua sharply criticized the Chinese government’s growing appetite for censorship in a recent open letter to the country's annual parliament, which closes Tuesday in Beijing.
Zhou Fang, a former top investigative reporter at Xinhua, which is closely controlled by the ruling Chinese Communist Party, sent his letter following the deletion last month of social media accounts belonging to celebrity tweeter and property tycoon Ren Zhiqiang.
"Government departments have completely disregarded the constitution and the principle of ruling by law in recent years," Zhou wrote. "Instead, they have set themselves up as the arbiters of public opinion."
Zhou declined to comment on the letter when contacted by RFA's Mandarin Service over the weekend.
"I have already said everything very clearly in the letter, so I'm not giving interviews," he told RFA.
Asked if he was now under pressure from the authorities, he replied: "I'm sure you can imagine what happens in such situations."
Zhou said he is currently "doing administrative work" at Xinhua, and is no longer working as a journalist.
Addressed to the standing committee of the National People's Congress, the Supreme People's Court, and the Communist Party's Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, Zhou’s letter appears to take a swipe at China's powerful Cyberspace Administration as it attacked government "management" of the Internet, including online news providers, who "can shut down or delete the social media accounts of individuals whenever they please."
China’s Cyberspace Administration said Ren Zhiqiang’s accounts on the Twitter-like services Sina Weibo and Tencent Weibo were closed in accordance with recent guidance on "safeguarding Internet security" in line with a recently passed National Security Law, official media reported in February.
A Beijing-based veteran journalist who spoke on condition of anonymity told RFA that their social media accounts were deleted after they posted comments on the silencing of Ren Zhiqiang.
"It's been 20 days now," the journalist said. "The main driver behind all of this is the Cyberspace Administration. It's part of their attempt to clean up the Internet.”
Zhou's letter comes after the Communist Party's powerful central propaganda department issued a 21-point directive to state media covering the National People’s Congress. The NPC runs from March 5-15.
The leaked instructions, translated and posted to the China Digital Times’ “Ministry of Truth” webpage, orders the media to focus coverage on President Xi Jinping, who was recently given the title "core leader" like the late supreme leader Deng Xiaoping.
Smog, security measures surrounding the congress, the national defense budget, and the personal wealth or appearance of staff or delegates are all off limits, as are doctor-patient disputes and hospital waiting line scams, the directive said.
Other politically sensitive topics to be avoided include international covenants of civil and political rights and the demolition of crosses atop Protestant churches in the eastern province of Zhejiang.
Any reporting on corruption or on relations with Taiwan and North Korea must use syndicated copy from Xinhua, while "negative reports" online must be "strictly controlled," the memo said.
Negative reporting on the stock market, foreign exchange, or property markets is also banned.
Chinese media are also forbidden to mention the overseas passports held by many delegates to the NPC and its advisory body, it said.
Sichuan-based journalist Feng Yuxi said he hadn't seen the original order, but that further prohibitions are also in place for journalists at a local level.
"I have seen reports of petitioners traveling to Beijing to complain [during the NPC], but we're not allowed to report that," Feng said. "We can't report on security arrangements around the NPC, nor can we write about the detention of petitioners who go to Beijing.”
"The controls have gotten much tighter in the past couple of years; a lot of things are controlled, and there are red lines."
The NPC theater
Qiao Mu, dean of Beijing Foreign Studies University's Center for International Communication Studies, said the entire annual gathering of the NPC is a form of theater.
"Every year, there are reports focusing on the journalists, the interpreters, the staff, the security police, and the general public who've been made to watch it on a screen outside," Qiao said.
"They talk about how the seating is laid out, how the water is poured, how the food is prepared. All of this is considered news."
"But they are ignoring the important points about how the NPC delegates got to be where they are, what they actually do," Qiao said. "Who directs the whole show?"
Reported by Qiao Long and Xin Lin for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.